Know all and you will pardon all.

Thomas A’Kempis

Guilt and/or shame leads to rumination and dwelling on the causes of what happened.  At a glance, this seems to be a potentially useful information-processing habit.  The problem, however, is that this post-mistake analysis is biased and the conclusion is typically foregone.

You have already decided that a) if you “made” the mistake, then, of course, it was your fault, and b) that the reason why you “made” the mistake is because you are flawed.  Let’s work on reversing this process in order to rediscover your motivational innocence and to learn to give yourself the benefit of the doubt.


Say, you and I happen to be on the same metro car.  I have flip-flops on.  You have stiletto shoes on.  The train car sways, you lose balance and nail my foot down to the floor with your stiletto heel.  Now I need reconstructive surgery, develop a limp and chronic pain, and get depressed.  My wife leaves me.  My life is ruined.  We bump into each other again. I tell you the story.  Should you feel guilty?  Of course not.  Regretful, but not guilty.  It’s clear you had no motive to hurt me.  But I got hurt.

Life’s chaotic like that: a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon and you have a tornado in Arkansas.  Should we blame the butterfly for the devastation of a tornado?  Of course, not.  But, in a way, we do.  We are sticklers for cause-and-effect.

If you happen to be involved in the causal chain of events, let alone if your behavior is an immediate antecedent of some kind of mishap, you blame yourself.  So, if you are the one who stepped on my toes, you conclude that if you had been more balanced, you would not have injured me and my life would not have been ruined.  If you are a self-loathing, CNN-watching butterfly in the Amazon, then you’d conclude that if you had only not flapped your wings, that trailer park would be still standing.

This is a very formal way of looking at causality.  Everything is inter-related, inter-connected, and inter-twined.  Any event is a collision of multiple variables.  Each variable is a cause of some effect.  The question is which one is the necessary and sufficient cause/reason behind the mistake you are beating yourself up for.

If you had stepped on somebody else’s foot, instead of mine, would they too have developed chronic pain, gotten depressed and lost their marriage?  It depends – on their body, on the quality of their marriage.  But it doesn’t all depend on you.  Millions of butterflies flap their wings every day non-stop. And now and then, that one wing flap becomes a part of a long equation of multiple causality that brings about a certain effect.  If you happen to be the last domino in that disastrous domino effect that doesn’t mean that you are to blame: you didn’t push the first domino.  Life did.

The Extent of Damage Is No Evidence of Malice or Imperfection

In the example above, the dramatic consequence of your loss of balance is neither indicative of the malice of your motive nor of your imperfection.  You had no reason to hurt me.  Thus, there was no malice.  And your loss of balance – that was no imperfection either!  You were as perfectly balanced as you could be at that moment in time.

Who knows, maybe you are not used to stiletto shoes but wore them for an office party (during which you had learned about a pending lay-off at work which panicked you and you had one too many cocktails as you commiserated with your colleagues).  There is nothing wrong with any of that!  Your presumed imperfection (whatever it might be), it too has a domino effect of multiple causality behind it.  And if you bother to unravel the chain of events behind it, you will find the innocence of your motive.

Digging Up the Hidden Variables with Beginner’s Mind

Life seems simple but when you poke around you unravel an amazing interplay of highly nuanced variables that conspire into a most unpredictable interplay.  Thus, true analysis of what happened requires an open mind or, to use a Zen term, a beginner’s mind, a mind that presumes nothing and keeps asking why.

Try the “Serial Why” Method

Think of a mistake you made and ask yourself a series of “why” questions to retrospectively track your course of action all the way back to the point at which the “mistake” you think you have made was an entirely natural and humanly understandable course of action given the situational context of that particular moment.  When you reach this point of “motivational innocence” you will experience a sense of self-forgiveness.

(adapted from “Present Perfect”)


Related: There Are No Mistakes